First Month Japanese folktale

Little Good Boy had just finished eating the last of five rice cakes called "dango," that had been strung on a skewer of bamboo and dipped in soy sauce, when he said to his little sister, called Chrysanthemum:—

"O-Kiku, it is soon the great festival of the New Year."

"What shall we do then?" asked little O-Kiku, not clearly remembering the festival of the previous year.

Thus questioned, Yoshi-san had his desired opening to hold forth on the coming delights, and he replied:—

"Men will come the evening before the great feast-day and help Plum-blossom, our maid, to clean all the house with brush and broom. Others will set up the decoration in front of our honored gateway. They will dig two small holes and plant a gnarled, black-barked father-pine branch on the left, and the slighter reddish mother-pine branch on the right. They will then put with these the tall knotted stem of a bamboo, with its smooth, hard green leaves that chatter when the wind blows. Next they will take a grass rope, about as long as a tall man, fringed with grass, and decorated with zigzag strips of white paper. These, our noble father says, are meant for rude images of men offering themselves in homage to the august gods."

"Oh, yes! I have not forgotten," interrupts Chrysanthemum, "this cord is stretched from bamboo to bamboo; and Plum-blossom says the rope is to bar out the nasty two-toed, red, gray, and black demons, the badgers, the foxes, and other evil spirits from crossing our threshold. But I think it is the next part of the arch which is the prettiest, the whole bunch of things they tie in the middle of the rope. There is the crooked-back lobster, like a bowed old man, with all around the camellia branches, whose young leaves bud before the old leaves fall. There are pretty fern leaves shooting forth in pairs, and deep down between them the little baby fern-leaf. There is the bitter yellow orange, whose name, you know, means 'many parents and children.' The name of the black piece of charcoal is a pun on our homestead."

"But best of all," says Yoshi-san, "I like the seaweed hontawara, for it tells me of our brave Queen Jingu Kogo, who, lest the troops should be discouraged, concealed from the army that her husband the king had died, put on armor, and led the great campaign against Korea. Her troops, stationed at the margin of the sea, were in danger of defeat on account of the lack of fodder for their horses; when she ordered this hontawara to be plucked from the shore, and the horses, freshened by their meal of seaweed, rushed victoriously to battle. On the bronzed clasp of our worthy father's tobacco-pouch is, our noble father says, the Queen with her sword and the dear little baby prince, Hachiman, who was born after the campaign, and who is now our Warrior God, guiding our troops to victory, and that spirit on whose head squats a dragon has risen partly from the deep, to present an offering to the Queen and the Prince."

"Then there is another seaweed, whose name is a pun on 'rejoicing.' There is the lucky bag that I made, for last year, of a square piece of paper into which we put chestnuts and the roe of a herring and dried persimmon fruit. Then I tied up the paper with red and white paper-string, that the sainted gods might know it was an offering."

"Bronze fishes sitting on their throats."
Yoshi-san and his little sister had now reached the great gate ornamented with huge bronze fishes sitting on their throats and twisting aloft their forked tails, that was near their home. He told his sister she must wait to know more about the great festival till the time arrived. They shuffled off their shoes, bowed, till their foreheads touched the ground, to their parents, ate their evening bowl of rice and salt fish, said a prayer and burnt a stick of incense to many-armed Buddha at the family altar. They spread their cotton-wadded quilts, rested their dear little shaved heads, with quaint circlet of hair, on the roll of cotton covered with white paper that formed the cushion of their hard wooden pillows. Soon they fell asleep to their mother's monotonously chanted lullaby of "Nenné ko."

"Sleep, my child, sleep, my child,
Where is thy nurse gone?
She is gone to the mountains
To buy thee sweetmeats.
What shall she buy thee?
The thundering drum, the bamboo pipe,
The trundling man, or the paper kite."
The great festival drew still nearer, to the children's delight, as they watched the previously described graceful bamboo arch rise before their gateposts. Then came a party of three with an oven, a bottomless tub, and some matting to replace the bottom. They shifted the pole that carried these utensils from their shoulders, and commenced to make the Japanese cake that may be viewed as the equivalent of a Christmas pudding. They mixed a paste of rice and put the sticky mass, to prevent rebounding, on the soft mat in the tub. The third man then beat for a long time the rice cake with a heavy mallet. Yoshi-san liked to watch the strong man swing down his mallet with dull resounding thuds. The well-beaten dough was then made up into flattish rounds of varying size on a pastry board one of the men had brought. Three cakes of graduated size formed a pyramid that was placed conspicuously on a lacquered stand, and the cakes were only to be eaten on the 11th of January.

The mother told Plum-blossom and the children to get their clogs and overcoats and hoods, for she was going to get the New Year's decorations. The party shuffled off till they came to a stall where were big grass ropes and fringes and quaint grass boats filled with supposed bales of merchandise in straw coverings, a sun in red paper, and at bow and stern sprigs of fir. The whole was brightened by bits of gold leaf, lightly stuck on, that quivered here and there. When the children had chosen the harvest ship that seemed most besprinkled with gold, Plum-blossom bargained about the price. The mother, as a matter of form and rank, had pretended to take no interest in the purchase. She took her purse out of her sash, handed it to her servant, who opened it, paid the shopman, and then returned the purse to her mistress. This she did with the usual civility of first raising it to her forehead. The decorations they hung up in their sitting-room. Then they sent presents, such as large dried carp, tea, eggs, shoes, kerchiefs, fruits, sweets, or toys to various friends and dependants.

On the 1st of January all were early astir, for the father, dressed at dawn in full European evening dress, as is customary on such occasions, had to pay his respects at the levee of the Emperor. When this duty was over, he returned home and received visitors of rank inferior to himself. Later in the day and on the following day he paid visits of New Year greeting to all his friends. He took a present to those to whom he had sent no gift. Sometimes he had his little boy with him. For these visits Yoshi-san, in place of his usual flowing robe, loose trousers, and sash, wore a funny little knickerbocker suit, felt hat, and boots. These latter, though he thought them grand, felt very uncomfortable after his straw sandals. They were more troublesome to take off before stepping on the straw mats, that, being used as chairs as well as carpets, it would be a rudeness to soil. The maids, always kneeling, presented them with tiny cups of tea on oval saucers, which, remaining in the maid's hand, served rather as waiters. Sweetmeats, too, usually of a soft, sticky nature, but sometimes hard like sugar-plums, and called "fire-sweets," were offered on carved lotus-leaf or lacquered trays.

For the 2nd of January Plum-blossom bought some pictures of the treasure-ship or ship of riches, in which were seated the seven Gods of Wealth. It has been sung thus about this Ship of Luck:—

"Nagaki yo no,  It is a long night.
To no numuri no.  The gods of luck sleep.
Mina mé samé.  They all open their eyes.
Nami nori funé no.  They ride in a boat on the waves.
Oto no yoki kana."  The sound is pleasing!

These pictures they each tied on their pillow to bring lucky dreams. Great was the laughter in the morning when they related their dreams. Yoshi-san said he had dreamt he had a beautiful portmanteau full of nice foreign things, such as comforters, note-books, pencils, india-rubber, condensed milk, lama, wide-awakes, boots, and brass jewelry. Just as he opened it, everything vanished and he found only a torn fan, an odd chop-stick, a horse's cast straw shoe, and a live crow.

When at home, the children, for the first few days of the New Year, dressed in their best crepe, made up in three silken-wadded layers. Their crest was embroidered on the centre of the back and on the sleeves of the quaintly flowered long upper skirt. Beneath its wadded hem peeped the scarlet rolls of the hems of their under-dresses, and then the white-stockinged feet, with, passing between the toes, the scarlet thong of the black-lacquered clog. The little girl's sash was of many-flowered brocade, with scarlet broidered pouch hanging at her right side. A scarlet over-sash kept the large sash-knot in its place. Her hair was gay with knot of scarlet crinkled crepe, lacquered comb, and hairpin of tiny golden battledore. Resting thereon were a shuttlecock of coral, another pin of a tiny red lobster and a green pine sprig made of silk. In her belt was coquettishly stuck the butterfly-broidered case that held her quire of paper pocket-handkerchiefs. The brother's dress was of a simpler style and soberer coloring. His pouch of purple had a dragon worked on it, and the hair of his partly shaven head was tied into a little gummed tail with white paper-string. They spent most of the day playing with their pretty new battledores, striking with its plain side the airy little shuttlecock whose head is made of a black seed. All the while they sang a rhyme on the numbers up to ten:—

"Hitogo ni futa-go—mi-watashi yo me-go,
Itsu yoni musashi nan no yakushi,
Kokono-ya ja—to yo."

When tired of this fun, they would play with a ball made of paper and wadding evenly wound about with thread or silk of various colors. They sang to the throws a song which seems abrupt because some portions have probably fallen into disuse; it runs thus:—

"See opposite—see Shin-kawa! A very beautiful lady who is one of the daughters of a chief magistrate of Odawara-cho. She was married to a salt merchant. He was a man fond of display, and he thought how he would dress her this year. He said to the dyer, 'Please dye this brocade and the brocade for the middle dress into seven-or eight-fold dresses;' and the dyer said, 'I am a dyer, and therefore I will dye and stretch it. What pattern do you wish?' The merchant replied, 'The pattern of falling snow and broken twigs, and in the centre the curved bridge of Gojo.'"

Then to fill up the rhyme come the words, "Chokin, chokera, kokin, kokera," and the tale goes on: "Crossing this bridge the girl was struck here and there, and the tea-house girls laughed. Put out of countenance by this ridicule, she drowned herself in the river Karas, the body sunk, the hair floated. How full of grief the husband's heart—now the ball counts a hundred."

This they varied with another song:—

"One, two, three, four,
Grate hard charcoal, shave kiri wood;
Put in the pocket, the pocket is wet,
Kiyomadzu, on three yenoki trees
Were three sparrows, chased by a pigeon.
The sparrows said, 'Chiu, chiu,'
The pigeon said, 'po, po,'—now the
Ball counts a hundred."

The pocket referred to means the bottom of the long sleeve, which is apt to trail and get wet when a child stoops at play. Kiyomadzu may mean a famous temple that bears that name. Sometimes they would simply count the turns and make a sort of game of forfeiting and returning the number of rebounds kept up by each.

Yoshi-san had begun to think battledore and balls too girlish an amusement. He preferred flying his eagle or mask-like kite, or playing at cards, verses, or lotteries. Sometimes he played a lively game with his father, in which the board is divided into squares and diagonals. On these move sixteen men held by one player and one large piece held by the second player. The point of the game is either that the holder of the sixteen pieces hedges the large piece so it that can make no move, or that the big piece takes all its adversaries. A take can only be made by the large piece when it finds a piece immediately on each side of it and a blank point beyond. Or he watched a party of several, with the pictured sheet of Japanese backgammon before them, write their names on slips of paper or wood, and throw in turn a die. The slips are placed on the pictures whose numbers correspond with the throw. At the next round, if the number thrown by the particular player is written on the picture, he finds directions as to which picture to move his slip backward or forward to. He may, however, find his throw a blank and have to remain at his place. The winning consists in reaching a certain picture. When tired of these quieter games, the strolling woman player on a guitar-like instrument, would be called in. Or, a party of Kangura boy performers afforded pastime by the quaint animal-like movements of the draped figure. He wears a huge grotesque scarlet mask on his head, and at times makes this monster appear to stretch out and draw in its neck by an unseen change in position of the mask from the head to the gradually extended and draped hand of the actor. The beat of a drum and the whistle of a bamboo flute formed the accompaniment to the dumb-show acting.

Yoshi-san thought the 4th and 5th days of January great fun, because loud shoutings were heard. Running in the direction of the sound, he found the men of a fire-brigade who had formed a procession to carry their new paper standard, bamboo ladders, paper lanterns, etc. This procession paused at intervals. Then the men steadied the ladder with their long fire-hooks, whilst an agile member of the band mounted the erect ladder and performed gymnastics at the top. His performance concluded, he dismounted, and the march continued, the men as before yelling joyously, at the highest pitch of their voices.

After about a week of fun, life at the villa, gradually resumed its usual course, the father returned to his office, the mother to her domestic employments, and the children to school, all having said for that new year their last joy-wishing greeting—omédéto (congratulations).